Posted on 19 Mar 2018 by Stephen Haselden

Surviving Mars

The Defence

Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Simulator, Strategy
Platform: Consoles, Mac, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 15 Mar 2018

The Prosecution

OS: Linux, Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 3.3 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 620
AMD Radeon HD 6450
Intel HD 4600
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Yes
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+
OS: Linux, Windows
CPU: Intel Core i5 3.8 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 750 Ti
AMD equivalent
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Yes
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

The Planet Mars has been the centre of many fantastic stories. There is something about the planet that inspires our imagination and now Paradox, and Haemimont Games have been inspired to use Mars to capture our imaginations in their game Surviving Mars. But this raises the question: Will Surviving Mars inspire our imaginations as much as the red planet? Or will this Surviving Mars be as successful as the original Mars 1, and end up in orbit around the Sun.

The Trial

Generally, Surviving Mars is a pretty relaxed game that lets you set your own goals and build the colony you want to build. However, Mars is an unforgiving environment that will punish the unprepared and even simple mistakes have a chance to cascade and kill your colonists. Surviving Mars has a lot of options for customizing objectives, resources, funding and which special abilities you start off with. These options are all selectable via your sponsor and mission commander. Additionally, you can also pick what mystery you’ll encounter, or leave it random, but crucially you also pick your landing spot on the red planet itself and that affects many more conditions. Even at more sedate landing spots there are many natural hazards and you will have to prepare your colony to handle dust storms, meteor strikes, dust devils and even cold snaps in some places. The difficulty of Surviving Mars depends a lot on your choices. But, even on easy settings there are plenty of dangers that can creep up on the unprepared.

The goal of Surviving Mars is to build a ‘successful colony’ on Mars. The definition of a ‘successful colony’ however, changes from game to game; it might be reliant on how much research you accomplish, how many people you have, or how soon they have children. There are a number of Milestones you are given (first dome, first colonists, first breakthrough etc.) with linked scores depending on your starting settings. But, the most important measures of a successful colony are your own goals and objectives. That’s the beauty of having a sandbox game with a strong theme; gamers become driven by their own imagination. In addition to the various Milestones to work towards, and your own aesthetic/totalitarian goals, there are some narrative driven mysteries hidden on Mars too. I can’t tell you too much about these as you only get one per play-through, and it can take a while to trigger them, but there are nine different mysteries with unknown outcomes waiting to be discovered.

To begin with, your Mars colony consists of: a rocket ship, a handful of remote drones, and their Rover(RV) Controllers. You will be watching the drones and the RV’s (Controllers, transporters, explorers) scurry back and forth for much of the game. Fortunately, Haemimont Games have designed the drones to be improbably cute. The RV’s on the other hand have more in common with Cylons than WallE and look decidedly menacing. I for one welcome our new robot overlords! Your drones will usually get on with important tasks without prompting and overriding their current jobs (you can see what they’re doing by just selecting them) is both tricker and less efficient than just leaving them to it. There is feedback available for most tasks and not too many headaches involved in managing your robot workforce. Jobs can occasionally become “caught in limbo” and on rare occasions this has meant I’ve had to delete a task and re-issue it before it gets completed. But, most of the time it just means something has been missed such as a closer supply depot, a closer drone controller, or just missing all the materials you need.

This is Dewey when he's finished on Mars, he'll be shipped off to the Valley Forge orbiting Saturn. Goodbye Dewey.

As you set about constructing a suitable base for your first colonists, Surviving Mars will give you regular hints about what needs building and about other basics of the gameplay like research, scanning, resources etc. The hints are enough to get you playing but they are not a complete guide. I highly recommend Quill18’s beginners guide or a let’s-play to find many important tips not covered in game. (e.g. Ctrl + Lclick building options, to affect all similar buildings). There is an in-game encyclopedia for details about particular buildings or research, but this isn’t a comprehensive guide either. Tutorials and game hints are one area that Haemimont Games need to improve.

Surviving Mars has one of the most interesting Research Trees I’ve ever seen. Although not as extensive as some Research Trees (Stellaris, Space Empires V), or with as many random discoveries as others (MoOII, Stardrive), the research in Surviving Mars is still exciting, mysterious, and will keep you busy for a long time. Research times increase with advancement along the tree. Most of the tech tree is hidden at the beginning of a game with just your initial techs and the next available ones visible. Technologies are split into six branches: Engineering, Physics, Robotics, Biotec, Sociology, and one special branch: Breakthroughs. Each technology remains in its relevant branch. However, the order (and difficulty to research) of each tech may vary from game to game. Research placement is not completely randomised; technologies usually appear in the same approximate sections of their branches. As each technology is researched the next available one in that branch will be uncovered. Anomalies can also uncover more research (you can only research items that have been made visible). But more importantly Anomalies will also uncover technologies in the breakthrough branch – these are always powerful technologies but are also always hidden until you find and examine an Anomaly. As well being powerful and exciting to find, Breakthrough techs are totally random from one game to another.

At any time you can zoom out to get a wider view of Mars and the surrounding landscape. This “strategic view” also shows resource estimates for surrounding sectors as well as letting you select which areas to scan with probes or sensors. This top down of Mars is very handy for long-term planning. Seeing all the resources and Anomalies gradually appear helps add to the sense of discovery and adventure, and encourages you to explore. If all goes well with the initial steps of setting up your Mars base you’ll soon be host to the first human arrivals on an alien planet.  While not essential to building a colony (trust me they’re not) humans beings make things more interesting (difficult). The expected needs for air, water, and food are just the tip of the iceberg; your colonists also have an extensive list of extra needs covering everything from alcohol addiction and chronic conditions, to art classes and having the latest i Pad. You’ll also need to plan for the colony’s future because before too long you’ll be responsible for some colonists who didn’t arrive by rocket.

Everything is peaceful until the colonists arrive.

With so many degenerates trying to leave Earth you’ll want to vet them before anyone sets foot on your pristine new planet. Unfortunately, colonist selection has some issues; When sorting through the prospective colonists there are various filters for specialisation, quirks, perks, age and sex. But none of these filters work while you’re looking through the colonist list, and none of your selections are saved between searches. This means if you want to arrange the prospective colonists with more than one set of criteria, or if you’re part-way through selecting and you find you need to widen your search, you lose all of your selections. Wasting time finding the same colonists multiple times out of a group of 70 or more left me a little aggravated. Relying on the automatic filters can work but only if you’re not concerned about keeping or rejecting specific colonists. As a workaround, the best method I found was getting out pen and paper to sort my colonists manually.

I’ve got to praise Haemimont for the UI in Surviving Mars; everything is tidy and neat and a pleasure to use. Basic info for each building, rover, and colonist is available, as well as metadata for each dome and for the colony as a whole. Balancing your resources is a huge part of Surviving Mars. Your initial objectives may involve making your colony self-sufficient but even when you’ve got a handle on each resource problems can still creep up on you. When the issues do arise it’s very easy for them to cascade; a power shortage might mean less polymers, less polymers might mean a repair is delayed, and if you reduce the priority  of that repair for any reason, and forget about it, before long you’ve got half your colony going to a research lab every day and just sitting there twiddling their thumbs. There were icons and warnings through every stage of this mishap but sometimes you miss stuff and things go wrong. This was just a mild example, other mishaps might lead to broken machinery, resource losses, and colonists dying. Each colonist has stats for their health, sanity, comfort, and morale, and to keep a happy colony you have to keep an eye on these things. Fortunately, there is metadata easily available for each dome and the whole colony showing the more common wants and needs. For the determined micromanager you can get down and dirty with every aspect of your colonist’s life, telling them where to live and which job to do. However, this can feel a bit like herding cats, as colonists won’t stay where they’re uncomfortable if they can move elsewhere. Generally speaking, it’s easier to leave them to their own devices as most of the time colonists will make reasonable choices and will even move from dome to dome if there’s a place that suits them better. If you ignore the colonists demands too long they may have a mental break, refuse to work, decide to return to Earth, or they may even decide to join the rebels.

Surviving Mars tends to focus my concentration on finishing the next task and keeping the colony alive. Building a colony on Mars is very much its own reward and part of that reward is simply stopping to admire your construction from time to time. Even watching your drones work and watching your colony grow is quite mesmerizing and satisfying. The barren beauty of Mars is impressive and your colony’s Atompunk architectural style only emphasises that beauty. It’s hard for me to say exactly why this style endears me so much but, as well as its obvious futurism, there is an optimism to Atompunk that will always inspire me. Haemimont obviously knows how captivating their game is as they’ve added a special screenshot tool so you can collect the best views. Another delightful addition to Surviving Mars is the radio; with three radio stations available with distinctive mellow music and humorous chatter. It’s all too easy to forget that your Martian colony is a fiction.

It's important to ensure that your colonists have access to the latest Ipads.

A game of Surviving Mars will take anywhere between five and twenty five hours. Apart from the odd graphics glitch (when an oxygen pipe disappeared for a second, it really made me panic), the occasional job caught in limbo, and one colonist running on the spot until she ran out of oxygen (my first death), I’ve seen no other bugs. The game runs smoothly even on high settings. Haemimont has emphasised the Workshop potential of Surviving Mars and although I’m unable to evaluate this properly I am optimistic about what this will mean (nineteen mods on day one is a good start). There is huge room for expansion in Surviving Mars. Simply modding a few basic features (new buildings, new technologies, new quirks and flaws for your colonists) has the potential to add to Surviving Mars’ excitement and replayability for years to come.

The Verdict

Surviving Mars is a game that is strongly carried by its theme, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is still an awesome game here. While mostly a relaxed game, the harshness of the Martian environment will make itself known from time to time and even a simple mistake can cascade into disaster. Juggling resources and colonists needs is an ever-present struggle, but the creations you’ll build in this struggle, and the beautiful Martian backdrop definitely makes it definitely worthwhile.

The UI is clear and well designed. Colonists selection is very awkward but isn’t needed too often. Otherwise, the management systems are well designed and lean towards a more meta-management style although still support some micromanagement. The there is no tutorial, only pop-up hints that are less than comprehensive. The addition of Martian mysteries has really taken Surviving Mars above and beyond. The Anomalies also help fuel the mystery and drive gamers to voraciously explore the landscape. The research system is easily one of the most fun research systems I’ve used and has many exciting concepts and creations. Surviving Mars is a mesmerising game that captures the imagination with its mystery, beauty, and Atompunk architecture.

Case Review

  • Mars Attacks: Great architecture and style.

  • Red Planet: The tech tree is full of surprising discoveries.

  • The Man Who Fell to Earth: Mars feel real, and full of mystery.

  • Mission to Mars: Good meta management and excellent UI.

  • John Carter: There is a an element of chance, but you decide how difficult you want things.

  • The Martian: The embarkation controls for colonists are infuriating.

  • Not Total Recall: The in-game hints don’t tell you everything. Watch some Let’s Plays.

5 Score: 5/5
A Martian Dream Come True


  • Graphics: There is the usual range of graphical display options, with a couple of extras including: Eye Adaption, Vignette, Resolution Percent, and FPS Counter. The in-game screenshot tool has some extra option, including three different black and white modes.
  • Sound: Basic but adequate sound options. The radio stations really add to the immersion, and its nice to have a few to pick from.
  • Controls: There are basic control and basic gameplay options, including mouse mouse controls, language, autosaves, and hints. There are also nine pages of fully rebindable keys for every shortcut you could want.


4.5 Score: 4.5/5

Surviving Mars is a wonderful game about something you’ll never guess! Oh, you did? That’s right, surviving in a location that happens to be Mars. The game is full of delightful mechanics, starting with rumbly little robots droning around like ants fetching whatever the queen desires; ending with the dust that accumulates on everything and the constant maintenance and upkeep that makes my soul want to bleed. Now don’t get me wrong, I get the concept of maintenance and all that upkeep makes it so it’s not a breeze. This fact, however, doesn’t make it any less obnoxious when I’m trying to make something lovely and it’s all dusty and my drones are off cleaning up some random device and consuming resources I then have to rocket in. The starting variability can seriously change how the game plays, personally I’m a little chicken and only played on International Mars Mission.

Speaking of drones and rockets; I find it mildly confusing that I could just rocket in everything I need so long as I have the funding to do so. To be fair, I was playing on very easy, which probably makes the game a cakewalk in comparison to what most colonies might end up being. I was always building in a spot with a lot of resources, and few disasters. What’s more, is that I find the depth of the upkeep so vexing that the drones very often end up getting dirty looks for spending my resources on things like making sure my citizens have water. I needed that machine part for making a tunnel to get to the upper landscape and get those research anomalies! On a more serious note, the mechanics all work well and mesh together like a well oiled machine, assuming you’re capable of being good at the game. My personal ability is something more like a Mars dust covered machine that occasionally does something correctly and produces a almost correct product.

Suffice to say, I’ve spent hours on the game and find it not only mechanically appealing, but strategically entertaining. I feel the developers had a serious focus on what they wanted, and made it happen. The art direction is simple, but divine in it’s simplicity, making things look delightful both at a distance and close up. I find the interface a bit of a challenge, but I’ve also never been geared towards interface heavy games, so it’s probably just me. I feel like the colonist aspect could use a bit of work, as I have absolutely no idea how to make any of those building worth having. In the end, I decided I should minimize my goal of having everything in a small dome, and ended up just trying to make money. I succeeded in this goal, and I have to say that it made me quite happy. That’s the summary for this game: It made me quite happy. I would seriously recommend Surviving Mars to anyone that loves city builders, it does what it says on the metaphorical box.

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